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Utah's reward for its best Pac-12 season is a repeat appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl and a second heated rivalry game in the next nine months.
The news that the Sun Bowl had selected Washington State and left Utah as the default pairing with BYU in Las Vegas was met with dismay by Ute fans on social media Sunday afternoon. But at risk of being said to have orchestrated it, Utah's Dec. 19 matchup presents story lines aplenty.
The 9-3 opponents will vie for in-state bragging rights for the 96th time. In Bronco Mendenhall's final game as BYU's head coach, he'll have an opportunity to snap a four-game skid against the man BYU first offered his job, Kyle Whittingham, and to earn his 100th win. Three U. coaches played for the Y. And there are the usual family conflicts: Utah junior kicker Andy Phillips is the brother of BYU women's soccer midfielder Bizzy, BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae is the uncle of Utah women's volleyball standout Adora, Utah freshman wideout Britain Covey is the brother of former BYU wideout Stephen, etc.
Mendenhall said in a news release that the chance to play a rival gives the game "some historic significance, as well [as] being a great matchup between two teams that have had outstanding seasons."
Added BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe: "Playing each other for the first time in a bowl game should add a unique chapter to our storied history."
Utah athletic director Chris Hill told The Tribune on Sunday that anybody would have been "awfully confused" to hear 10 years ago that Utah was meeting BYU in a bowl game. Utah thought it might be selected higher in the Pac-12 order, he acknowledged, but "we're not going to act like we're whining."
"The reality is, we're playing," he said. "No matter what I say, I think people could maybe take it the wrong way."
Whittingham neglected to mention BYU in an official statement, focusing instead on his team's accomplishments and respect for his Vegas hosts. He was out of town recruiting, according to Utah's sports information staff, and was not available for additional comment.
The so-called Holy War had been on a two-year break. After its first interruption since World War II, imperiled by Utah's challenging conference schedule and desire to play BYU early in the season, it was due to resume the second weekend of next season. This September, the schools extended the series through 2020, and Hill said he and Holmoe were working toward 2021-2022 deals.
Some Utah players preferred the Las Vegas Bowl to the Sun Bowl, higher in the pecking order but played Dec. 26 in El Paso, Texas. This way, they'll be able to spend Christmas with their families. And because of the proximity, players can opt to drive themselves and pocket a large portion of the travel expenses provided to them by the team.
There are some logistical drawbacks to Vegas, though. The bowl buildup doubles as finals week for both Utah and BYU. Kickoff follows a 10 a.m. MST tip between Utah's men's basketball team and Duke at Madison Square Garden, which some Utah fans and Hill, too made plans to attend. And given an expectation that Utah would play in the later Holiday or Foster Farms bowls, Whittingham had expected to make the upcoming week light on practice, heavy on recruiting.
Utah fans will also likely find themselves outnumbered at Sam Boyd Stadium. BYU accepted its invite last week, and the bowl had sold a "majority" of its non-allotted tickets by Sunday afternoon, said executive director John Saccenti. Utah also has a lesser ticket allotment 7,500 to BYU's 11,000 because the Pac-12 negotiated for a reduction two years ago. Hill said he "would not be surprised" if BYU held something of a home-field advantage.
Saccenti said the disparity is largely due to the Pac-12's choice to reduce the allotment. "There's a lot of upset Utah fans out there ... but that's certainly not the bowl's fault."
Three Pac-12 teams "jumped" the No. 22-ranked Utes in the bowl order. Discussions with bowl executives indicate that Utah, ranked as high as No. 3 by the AP before its first loss, fell to sixth among Pac-12 bowl selections because of its 3-3 finish, the attractiveness of USC's brand name in San Diego's Holiday Bowl (another repeat invite), the proximity of UCLA to Santa Clara's Foster Farms Bowl and the allure of bringing Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense back to Texas for the Sun Bowl.
Phillips described a "mixed" reaction to the news that Utah might play BYU. Many players were excited for a chance to beat their rivals, he said, and to play where their families were a day's drive away. Personally, Phillips said, he was grateful to be in a bowl, even if he'd rather have experienced something new.
As to why other bowls passed on the Utes, Phillips wasn't sure.
"I could speculate, at least, that maybe there's a flashier team out there than us, but bottom line: We play hard-nosed, good defense, good special teams and a solid offense, so if that's not flashy enough for some bowl selection committees or whatever, then so be it."
It will be Utah's fifth appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl, which they won 45-10 against Colorado State last season to cap a 9-4 season. BYU accepted an invite during each of Mendenhall's first five seasons, going 3-2.
The Utes hold a 57-34-4 series edge against the Cougars, and Whittingham is 8-1 in bowl games, while Mendenhall is 6-4. Whittingham will earn two months' base salary, or more than $110,000, as a bonus for his 10th bowl appearance.
Fans may purchase remaining tickets at utahtickets.com/football or by calling 801-581-8849.
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl
No. 20 Utah (9-3) vs. BYU (9-3)
1:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19 in Las Vegas
TV • ABC
Schedule • Teams arrive Tuesday, Dec. 15, with a welcome reception on Fremont Street Dec. 16, charity events Dec. 17, a show night on Dec. 17, a kickoff luncheon on the 18th, and a fan pep rally on Fremont Street Dec. 18.